This is the second half of the “Interpretive Overview” by William McKee Evans, the author of Open Wound: The Long View of Race in America. It appears before the Preface in the book. The first half of the essay was posted yesterday.
“People with power have the means to mold the way a society views the world. They can establish their own outlook as orthodox or the mainstream view. They can make the views of their challengers heretical or even turn the opposition into solitary voices crying in the wilderness. They can establish the language of normal political discussion. The normal words and phrases used have inherent biases validating their position. Hegemony is complete when ordinary citizens do not perceive the limitations imposed by the belief system of their society, neither its assumptions, its restrictions on subject matter, nor the biases inherent in the words they use. Instead, one normally assumes that public discourse is framed by self-evident truths.
In the antebellum American republic, the people whom the abolitionists called the Slave Power established a hegemonic North-South consensus of racial ideas. The planters and their northern business partners, the commodity brokers and bankers, held this hegemonic ideological power. The commodities that slaves produced provided two-thirds of the nation’s exports, making planters the richest class in the country and their northern allies the second richest class. The defense of slavery was thus critical both to the prosperity of the planters and to the accumulation of capital in the North.
The Slave Power was most vulnerable in the North, where slavery had been abolished in the wake of the War for Independence. Slavery was serving less and less the self-interest of most Northerners, indeed of most Southerners as well. More and more, it was harming their interests. As the unavoidable tensions caused by slavery mounted, the Slave Power “played the race card,” in the latter-day phrase, with an intensity never seen before, saturating the nation, above all the North, with the message that blacks as slaves were happy and useful, but when free were lazy and dangerous. To convey this message they mobilized every vehicle of culture: the political rally, the newspaper, the church, the school, and most vividly the minstrel show. The formative American nation was thus thoroughly indoctrinated with an ideology of race.
The Republican revolution overthrew the Slave Power. But the Republicans did not complete their revolution in the South. During the struggles of Reconstruction, they repudiated their Radical contingent and finally came to terms with the former Confederates, leaving them in local control and allowing them to restore plantation production based on half-free labor. By the turn of the twentieth century, the new national corporate establishment, after defeating the challenges of the Farmers’ Alliance movement and the Knights of Labor, finally established a corporate hegemony that continued into the twenty-first century. Also by the turn of the twentieth century, the ex-Confederates had finally crushed all opposition and achieved a “solid South.” The age of segregation had begun.
Although the corporate elite in the North used free labor, they retained most of the racial ideology of the antebellum nation. They endorsed segregation in the South and tolerated its labor system, half free for blacks and little better for many whites. In the North, industrialists continued their “white only” hiring policy of the antebellum era. This policy helped keep black workers on the plantations and made possible a vigorous revival of southern commodity exports. Also, just as at the beginning of the racial system, planters in the West Indies had used a few less-debased whites to control many blacks, now industrialists used a few more-debased black strikebreakers to control many whites. The racial ideology of the antebellum regime was well suited to the needs of the new northern leaders. Indeed they built on it with so-called scientific racism.
The racial system showed increasing instability as the nation moved toward globalism. World War I opened industrial jobs in the North to black workers for the first time, giving rise to a process of black urbanization and the appearance of the more assertive “new Negro.” The racial system became more unstable with the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression of the 1930s, which created the first important split in the American elite since the Civil War. In response to the Great Depression, one faction, the New Dealers, favored economic and social programs. They began a reform movement. In the New Deal movement, African Americans came together with such other previously marginalized groups as the “new immigrants” and organized labor. Civil rights once again became a political issue.
After World War II, American leaders positioned themselves as the leaders of the “free world.” At the same time, through the Atlantic Pact, they gave military support to the European powers that were trying to suppress the freedom movements in their colonies. The struggle of the “free world” against the “Communist slave world” precipitated the Cold War ideological crisis of the racial system. The black freedom movement saw its moment and seized it. The movement brought down the “white only” signs, opened the polling booth to black Southerners, and restored vitality to the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. By the late 1960s, more than half of African Americans had escaped from the bottom layer of society that they had occupied for three hundred years.
The black freedom movement came to grief when it moved from abolishing the legal disabilities that African Americans suffered to addressing their disproportionate poverty. Civil rights made slight demands on the nation’s resources and enhanced its political image. But programs to provide jobs and to combat poverty required resources the nation’s leaders wanted to use for their increasingly costly military ventures. Indeed social programs already in place were eroded ever more as the “welfare state” was displaced by the “national security state.” In the backlash against social programs, new racial stereotypes appeared, Sambo the servant being replaced by Willie Horton the criminal and by the “gangsta rappers.” The plight of the black poor and other poor people worsened with the “information revolution,” which privileged a quality education out of the reach of most people and facilitated the outsourcing of jobs to low-wage countries.
The nation’s growing gap between rich and poor signals a new crisis in which, for the first time in three hundred years, the line of class is more sharply drawn than the line of race. Historically, African Americans, however, as the last hired and first fired, have been the “miners’ canary,” the harbingers of coming trouble. In the misery, chaos, and high incarceration rates suffered by African Americans of the inner city, one may see some of what lies ahead for the rest of American society.”